Is it possible to build the perfect guitar rig? With the right set of guitar pedals, you can certainly get close!
We’ve taken a look at some of music’s most iconic signature sounds, and used them to build any guitarists’ dream pedal board.
From the monstrous overdrives of Hendrix and Cobain to the psychedelic tremolos and chorus of Kevin Parker and Dan Auerbach, we’ve picked the cream of the crop in pursuit of terrific tone.
It should be noted that this is just a researched guideline. You should feel free to experiment with your own pedal sequences and combinations as you see fit. That is how all the best discoveries are made.
There are different types of guitar pedals available, such as reverb, delay and distortion. In this article we’re going to explain how these effects help add color to your guitar playing.
So, let’s get to work!
Table of Contents
- Distortion Pedals:
- Compressor Pedals:
- Delay Pedals:
- Multi Effects Pedals:
- Overdrive Pedals:
- Wah Pedals:
- Looper Pedals:
- Reverb Pedals:
- Chorus Pedals:
- Boost Pedals:
- Tremolo Pedals:
- Fuzz Pedals:
- Phaser Pedals:
- Flanger Pedals:
- Vibrato Pedals:
- Noise Gate Pedals:
- Acoustic Guitar Pedals:
- Volume Pedals:
- Octave Pedals:
- EQ Pedals:
- Bass Distortion Pedals:
- Metal Pedals:
- Expression Pedals:
- What are the essential guitar pedals that you need?
- How do you arrange guitar pedals in an effects loop?
- How do you power multiple electric guitar pedals?
Distortion is all about adding some bite to your tone. This pedal will increase the gain signal in your guitar chain, giving your sound an aggressive character. This is the basis of the majority of rock, blues and metal riffs or solos.
You’ll generally want to place your distortion pedals right at the start of your pedal chain. If you are using any space/time based effects, it’s best to get as much punch into them as possible.
You can obviously experiment with putting distortion after these pedals, but they tend to fog up your overall mix quite easily.
The Boss DS1 distortion pedal is a great choice for strong, simple reliable distortion. It is one of the must have guitar pedals that everyone should own. Originally released in 1978 as one of Boss’s first effects units, this three knob unit has a surprising tonal range for its size.
The lower end of the ‘’tone’’ dial gives the user a heavy body for some meaty riffs. The higher end provides some great high frequency saturation for screaming solos.
This distortion pedal is also really durable, lightweight and within reach for even the most beginner guitar players. Put this at the helm of your audio arsenal to add some solid muscle to your licks.
Compressor pedals are like the caretakers of your notes. What they essentially do is bring up your softer sounds, while also buffering any signal that’s too high.
The overall result is a more balanced tone.
In order to keep your overall signal as clear as possible, it’s best to set your compressor pedal near the front of your pedal chain.
Your compressor can pull out the best parts of your playing, and send a polished version of it down through your other effects. Adding release will increase sustain to your notes, while shortening the attack parameter will give your picking extra pop.
There is some stiff competition for the best compressor on the market. Both the MXR Dyna Comp and the Boss CS-3 are strong front-runners. They both have distinct control settings, and will give any player a solid added control of their total rig dynamic.
If you’ve ever been into spacey guitar songs, you’ll definitely want to invest in a great delay unit.
These units record, and then repeat notes after they’ve been played. What you hear is a copy of the note tailing it’s release. The sound is similar to an echo, without the sense of reflection.
This helps to create the idea of extra depth.
Increasing the feedback setting on these units will increase the amount of repetitions played back. There is also a time setting to control the size of the intervals of the delay itself. Tap tempo will synchronize your delay time to the bpm of whatever it is you’re performing.
Because delay involves repeating sounds, it’s usually best to set your delay at the end of your pedal chain. You want to build your tones with compression, eq and other effects before you bounce them around the room.
An affordable delay pedal that you should consider is the Boss DD7. It has all the standard features that you’d want from an advanced digital delay pedal. These include a 6.4 sec expanded delay time, modulation delay, an analog delay mode and tap tempo.
Multi Effects Pedals:
Some players may not have the space or budget to set up their ideal chain of effects. There is however a slight loophole for getting all your sounds into one unit. The multi-fx unit.
Multi-FX units contain digital boards that recreate the idea of one or many effects’ pedals and place them in a single stompbox. You can also save your sounds on the pedal as a preset and switch presets with a single push.
While many find these to be a really quick solution to getting a reliable tone, purists will always contest that it’s never as good as the real thing. And they tend to have a point.
Even though these pedals can be jam packed with all sorts of accessories, the sounds you get will still be ‘stock’ sounds. This means that you can’t switch out the flanger for another one like in an analogue chain. This can be a bit limiting.
The Boss GT-1 multi effects pedal thrives in its ability to fit a wide variety of tone and effects into a very compact unit. It has some great preamps and compressors as well as reverbs, delays and other modulators. It even has a looper!
There are some gear enthusiasts out there that just want to add some extra weight and edge to their tone. Overdrive pedals are designed to give the effect of a tube amp with it’s gain turned all the way up. This gives the signal a sort of crunchy sound.
Needless to say, this can result in some really gritty overtones. Ideal for heavier styles of music like blues, rock and heavy metal.
The general rule of thumb, (as with distortion units) is to place your overdrive pedal in the beginning stages of your chain. The effect is focused on shaping and boosting your tone as opposed to modulating it. This means that it works best if it gets a clear signal (eg: no reverbs or, vibratos, echoes).
Ibanez offer a great, reliable range of guitars and pedals. They have an excellent overdrive pedal too. The Ibanez TS808 is a great example of this. It’s signature chip recreates the tube shriek really well and it sounds great in conjunction with a good compressor pedal.
Anyone who wants to call themselves a guitar player should know about Jimi Hendrix. And anyone that knows Hendrix, knows the iconic riff from his smash hit ‘’Voodoo Chile’’.
The riff itself is drenched in a hypnotic effect that makes it sound like it’s being squeezed out of a rubber tube. This “squelch’’ sound is courtesy of the wah pedal. It sweeps across your tone’s frequencies, and its name is the best description for its overall sound.
Featuring quite consistently in funk and blues setups, the wah-wah pedal generally sits after your distortion/overdrive pedals. It works best using just a clear boosted signal from your guitar.
Some players prefer to have their wah as a prominent part of their solos. Dunlop brought out the Cry Baby in 1966 and it instantly flooded the market. It has stayed a firm favourite for everyone from Kirk Hammet (Metallica) and Eric Clapton to Gary Clark Jnr. and Brittany Murphy.
There are some performers out there who like to make a one-man band of themselves. The world of looping is a playground for these musos. Think Ed Sheeran, Tash Sultana or yes, Jeremy Loops!
A looper pedal records your inputs (guitar, vocals, keys etc) and replays them as loops. For example, you could beat box 8 bars of rhythm, loop it, and add layers of bass for groove, and then guitar for color. The potential combinations are endless!
These units are handy for solo performers who are looking to expand their soundscape and performances. It’s advised to place this after all your other effects. This allows for you to fit as many different sonic dynamics into your looping, by adding or removing effects per layer.
Boss have a stand out series of pedals, with options tendered to your level of looping ambition. The RC3 loop pedal is a simple but powerful example of the series’ functionality.
This single stomp unit comes with two inputs and outputs, onboard memory for storing ideas and even has a drum machine. Stomp once to record, stomp once to overdub, stomp twice to stop. It’s that easy. So get to playing!
Space is the place. This is the mantra of every guitarist looking to add that dreamy depth to their compositions. The first step to reaching these tonal desires usually starts at the reverb unit.
Reverb pedals simulate the idea of your guitar’s signal reflecting off of walls. Think of how it sounds when you clap your hands in a hall or a church, as opposed to in a small room or closet. All those extra natural textures that tail the initial clap can be described as reverb.
This effect really helps things like guitars or vocals sparkle. With that in mind it’s best to know that reverb pedals work well at the end of your pedal chain.
You don’t want your guitar signal being bounced around before it gets shaped by compressors or distortions. Get a strong tone first, then send it through your reverb pedal.
Boss and MXR have both produced amazing reverb units for guitar players.
The Boss Reverb RV6 features a really nice set of reverb simulations, each with their own special purpose. The MXR M300 Reverb Analog guitar pedal offers a similar setup with equal quality in processing, and the option of an expression pedal input for more adventurous tonal exploring.
The chorus effect is a great companion if you are looking to add textures to your tones. These are one of the more popular choices when it comes to modulation gear.
Chorus is the doubling or mirroring of a sound. A chorus pedal creates a replica of your soundwave and plays it back with slight time or tuning differences. The result is the illusion of many similar sources emitting the same idea – like a choir singing in unison.
This effect works well sitting in before any delays or reverbs, and after any tone shaping or gain pedals. A little bit of this electric guitar effect can really bring out extra atmosphere to picked out guitar licks.
Turning its effect parameter up will generate an increase in time and pitch warping.
There’s a real charm in the application of the “less is more” ideal. Choruses sound interesting when in full effect, but its real strength lies in its subtlety. Try the MXR Analog Chorus with the ‘rate’ and ‘depth’ dials turned just slightly up.
Sometimes your guitar needs nothing more than a slight kick in the signal flow.
A well built guitar should have great “true’’ sound when plugged directly into an amp or mixer. If this is the case with yours, then you’ll sometimes want to lift your tone without compromising it’s mix.
Boost pedals are perfect for this. Simply put, they are designed to make you sound louder. This unit works especially well if you are playing in a group, and simply need to be turned up for specific parts of a song.
This doesn’t translate into more gain or distortion, just a bigger version of your original guitar’s tone. That being said, some units do tend to add some bite when activated.
It’s well advised to put a boost pedal after your compressor, and before any distortion or gain pedals in your chain.
Boosting is all about clarity, so putting it after any reverbs or delays will dilute its overall effect. Again, this is always open to experimentation. Try out combos and see if something new pops up!
The MXR Micro amp seems quite unassuming at first glance – but it has become quite the popular choice among tone fanatics.
A single stomp button elevates your signal with effortless precision, giving your sound just the right amount of added edge when and where you seek it. It’s also an affordable boost pedal, costing under $100!
Tremolo literally translated means to tremble, quiver or shake. When used correctly these nifty effect units give guitarists a really ambient, cool characteristic.
Vibrato and tremolo are often confused with each other. Where vibrato modulates pitch, tremolo creates a rise and fall in overall volume. This gives the signal an added sense of movement and depth.
Very popular among blues players, some tremolo units come stock standard with amps.
Try out a standalone tremolo pedal like the TR2 from Boss. It has rate and depth controls which let you set the LFO that moves your signal as you see fit. It also gives you two different options on the shape of your oscillator. You can even blend the two.
This effect is often confused with overdrive, or extreme distortion. While they all possess similar characteristics, it’s important to know how one differs from the next.
Overdrive and distortion create the impression of a tube amp cranked to its limits. A fuzz pedal on the other hand takes this same effect and squares off the total wave shape.
The tone carries the same level of dirt, but now it has a greater element of punch. It’s like controlled chaos!
These units were used frequently during the rock periods of the 60’s and 90’s. These days, they appear on more modern indie rock albums. They are still used to add a brassy beef to riffs and hooks.
It’s best to place these pedals before any modulations, reverbs or delays, otherwise things can get very messy in your mix.
The Big Muff by Electro Harmonix is notorious for its ability to make any riff sound downright mean. Three knobs for tone, sustain and overall volume give the player all they need to wrestle the powerful processing that this unit provides.
Phasers are one of the most classic and distinct devices in the sound world.
Phasing is achieved when your guitar’s waveform is duplicated through a low frequency oscillator, or better known as LFO. The LFO takes the duplicate signal and cuts out parts of it’s EQ spectrum periodically.
The affected duplicate is then sent back to it’s twin and they meet in phase.
The type of sound is a kind of fuzzy haze. The phasing double sounds as if it snakes alongside it’s dry original. The higher the rate of phase, the quicker the signal snakes.
A phaser pedal will function best after some compression and tone shaping. Setting it in between other modulations like a chorus or tremolo can make for some interesting noises.
Using too many mods will muddy up your signal flow, so start small and work your way up. Try out The Helix Phaser by TC Electronics. It has a great feature where it turns off the dry signal and just runs the phased double. With this you can really get up close to a trippy effect.
This is another wonderful option in the mod department for space heads to try out.
Similar to chorus, flangers create a twin of your original signal and plays them alongside each other. The difference between a chorus and a flanger effect is that the latter has a much quicker delay intervals.
These fast reacting intervals make your tone sound like it’s spinning inside a wind tunnel. The duplicate moves in and out of phase with its original, creating an almost swishy noise. This is due to the filter sweeping caused by the LFO.
As with other modulations, a flanger pedal works best when run after some tone shaping and compression. It definitely pops more when it gets strong, clear information from further up the chain.
Flangers generally work best as a standalone mod effect, so you want to make sure you invest in a good one. Boss have the BF3 up for grabs. It has a surprisingly large set of control parameters for its humble size.
Those with the capacity, should try pairing this with DD7 delay for an amazing shimmer!
Vibrato describes a controlled pulsing deviation in a signal’s pitch. These can be quick or slow and can vary in size.
A really famous example is the Link Wray instrumental hit, “Rumble’’. As the song progresses, Wray famously turns up the vibrato on his amp. The repeated phrase warps it’s pitch further and further, almost being sliced up into chunks. The result is certainly intoxicating.
Vibratos were particularly popular in the blues and psychedelia circles. These units shine when used with cleaner compressed guitar signals and before any delay or echo pedals.
Try out the UniVibe effects unit by Dunlop. This vibrato pedal is meant to replicate the famous Leslie Speaker sound of the 60’s. As a bonus, it also comes with a chorus option.
Noise Gate Pedals:
Expanding your board has all sorts of perks, but it can also have it’s obstacles. Players often will hear a mid to low hum in their chain when using booster or compressors. Even more so with distortion.
This type of noise is caused when electronics are plugged into each other, more so in series. The source is the build up of current between every guitar, pedal and amp. It messes with the clarity of your overall sound by fogging up frequencies.
But there is a remedy, noise suppressors do as their name suggests. They create a gate that opens and closes around the notes you play, leaving behind any other interference.
These are designed to handle high gain setups, so it’s best to put these after your overdrive, distortion or fuzzes. The idea is to push your true tone up – and the haze around it – out.
The NS-2 by Boss offers high performance gain control in a compact, sleek single stompbox. This noise gate pedal comes with a send and return channel as well. This makes it perfect for pairing with high gain pedals or amps.
Acoustic Guitar Pedals:
For the more organic, acoustic player, there are a handful of useful tools that will really bring out the best parts of your stripped down approach.
Acoustic guitars generally don’t bond well with electric amplification.
Similarly, touring acoustic players can struggle to maintain a general tone when jumping from one P.A to another. Thankfully acoustic pedals are designed to manage the very basic, but highly essential factors to mixing these instruments.
These units have a nicely designed pre-amp to help send as much clear information from your pickup through the rest of the chain. It’s always an advantage to have some EQ control in these modules, as well as compression. The Fishman aura has all of these and so much more.
Along with the 3 band EQ and compressor knob, it also has some wonderful preset tones that can be tweaked and saved for later use.
This acoustic pedal has an anti feedback feature which can be a life saver in harsh sound environments. The Fishman aura also comes with a built in tuner to keep your setup compact.
Volume pedals can often be an overlooked part of the pedalboard puzzle. That being said, its remarkably essential to anyone who wants to be meticulous with their live performance rig.
It’s a common occurrence to play a live set to an engineer that is unfamiliar with your mix requirements. Have you ever watched a lead guitarist dive into a solo only to be drowned out by the rest of the band? Or on the flip side, maybe they are too loud to enjoy.
Volume pedals will quickly solve this problem.
Their task is simply to control the overall level of your pedalboard’s signal. It’s best to place the volume pedal right after your guitar, at the top of your chain. This will give your pedal chain the truest signal possible for cleaner effect modulations.
Boss has a sleek, sturdy volume pedal in its pedalboard series. It has a well built expression pedal that can be adjusted according to the speed you want your volume to be released at. It also has a handy separate out for tuner pedals.
Octaves are the same note in a scale, vibrating at either exactly half, or double the speed of its origin. By layering these notes on top of each other, you get a bigger wall of sound with great overtones.
The overall effect of an octave pedal adds some serious punch to hooks and guitar riffs. Jack White sky rocketed to fame with his raw, growling single string riffs. More often than not these riffs are stacked in octave. This adds an extra anthemic essence to his compositions.
If you’re planning on adding an octave pedal to your pedalboard, you’ll want to set this unit at just before any distortion or tone pedals you have in the chain. Again an octaver pedal works best when it gets a clean a signal as possible.
White’s main weapon of choice for his earlier works was a Digitech Whammy. This eccentric red machine gives players the option of adding lower and/or higher octaves to their tone, in addition to some crazy harmonic presets.
Its expression pedal also lets you glide your notes up and down an octave, which can make for some wacky solo phrasing.
The aural perfectionist will want to polish his guitar mix as much as possible before sending it through an amp or P.A system. In fact, all guitarists should learn the ins and outs of shaping their tones with the aid of equalisation, better known as EQ.
An EQ pedal simulates equalization gear. These units either soften, boost or cut out frequencies in your mix, depending on your tonal requirements.
Imagine that your neck pickup was your best sounding pickup, but it seemed a bit too thin at times. Using an eq pedal, you can easily boost your low end, without compromising the rest of your overall mix.
This is also really handy when used before or after your compressor pedal in the signal chain. Once your guitar’s original signal is processed with extra clarity via the EQ – it will really bring out the best in your other pedals that follow.
Boss’s GE7 is a great tool for those seeking quick but effective mix control. 7 small faders control specific areas or bandwidths of your frequency output. These range from you sub and bass end at 100hz to the top side at 6.5k. It also has an overall level fader to help keep your volume in check.
Bass Distortion Pedals:
Bass players – this one is specifically for you. It’s not just the six strings that get to add a little bit of grit to your tone. The warm low end you produce could sometimes just use a dose of character.
Enter the bass distortion. These sub-friendly modules introduce the same tube amp simulation as guitar pedals. The only difference being that it is designed to handle the lower frequencies that bass guitars cover.
Used in conjunction with a decent compressor going into it, this is a great option for anyone looking for more attack in their overall sound.
Pro Co have become well known among the heavier sides of guitar music such as punk, metal and stoner rock. They offer the Pro Co Rat 2, a great distortion that hand bassists some growl for big riffing and edgy grooves.
Heavy metal heads looking to get the real “chug” out of their gear thank the tech gods every day for metal distortion gear.
Where overdrive and fuzz units get really good saturation and amp simulation, metal distortion focuses on adding a serious boost in gain to your tone.
If distortion pedals were gorillas – the metal distortion would be the burly silverback. Not satisfied with the “weight” that regular distortions provide? There are a huge variety of metal specific distortions and fuzzes out there.
Like regular tone shaping pedals, these work best near the start of your chain, with your volume and compression running into it’s input. This will ensure that your guitar gives the unit the strongest, clearest signal possible, which turns into a really punchy, dynamic crunch.
With EHX’s Metal Muff, guitarists will have just about all the control they need to send their tone to gain heaven. It boasts a 3 band EQ, as well as an additional top boost knob, to give metalheads the extra squeal they need for their solos. Its delivery is best described with one word – monstrous.
Certain effects can have more dynamic than simply on vs off. At times, a player may write a piece that shines when it’s effect is constantly moving, as opposed to being fixed.
Perhaps a chorus grows in size, and is complemented by adding more reverb or delay with each passing cycle.
Expression pedals opened up all sorts of tonal gateways for guitarists.
Many guitarists use an expression pedal to emphasize key parts of their hooks or riffs. Try combining this pedal with a time based and mod effect like tremolo to truly get a grip on its functionality.
An expression pedal only affects the units that you send it to. It acts as a third party device and as such, will not affect your overall signal based on its place in the chain.
There is a really sturdy, user friendly option in the field of expression, the EV30 by Boss. It comes with two outputs for separate devices. You can layer them simultaneously to get some crazy results.
The Boss EV30 also works with keyboards and midi controllers. It is quite versatile and is ideal for both recording and live performances.
There will come a time when you’ll have to map your guitar sonic ambitions into an orderly fashion. It’s a lot easier to navigate your way through your experiments with a pedal board.
These are handy boards or platforms with routing fittings to organise your pedals, cables and power supplies. This means no more messy floor space when performing or practicing. It’s also essential for touring or busking.
A good pedal board should be durable, lightweight and carry the ergonomic requirements for switching pedals around. Gokko have an affordable base that is available as a kit that includes velcro and a carrying bag. The velcro makes it easy for players to temporarily fix their pedals in series without them shifting while in use. All you need is your guitar pedals and power supply such as the Donner DP-1.
Their pack also includes some very necessary patch cables, and the board slips into a compact soft case with carry handles for players on the move.
Before you go out and buy the craziest, most colourful piece of gear out there, consider that tone is a delicate balance. Without the fundamentals, you probably won’t get the maximum potential out of your gear. Start with getting some decent tone shaping equipment. A reliable compression paired with good boost/drive will lay a great foundation for any further tonal exploration. A great reverb will also help to round off any tones you create quite wholesomely. And yes, if you don’t own one, buy a tuner. The general rule of thumb for pedal order is as follows: 1. Compression, Noise Gate, Boosters. There are a variety of power units that can be fixed onto a board to power groups of pedals at one time. Make sure to check your every pedal’s individual power requirements before setting them up to avoid any possible gear damage. Donner provides a great range of power supply units, for a variety of size and power requirements. The DP-2 has 10 separate power outputs to help you build a healthy collection of tones. It also comes with great LED lighting that gives just enough illumination for working in dim to dark environments.
What are the essential guitar pedals that you need?
How do you arrange guitar pedals in an effects loop?
2. Wah, EQ.
3. Overdrive, Distortions, Fuzz.
4. Chorus, Tremolo, Vibrato, Flangers etc.
5. Delays, Echos, Reverbs
How do you power multiple electric guitar pedals?
Before you go out and buy the craziest, most colourful piece of gear out there, consider that tone is a delicate balance. Without the fundamentals, you probably won’t get the maximum potential out of your gear.
Start with getting some decent tone shaping equipment.
A reliable compression paired with good boost/drive will lay a great foundation for any further tonal exploration. A great reverb will also help to round off any tones you create quite wholesomely.
And yes, if you don’t own one, buy a tuner.
The general rule of thumb for pedal order is as follows:
1. Compression, Noise Gate, Boosters.
There are a variety of power units that can be fixed onto a board to power groups of pedals at one time. Make sure to check your every pedal’s individual power requirements before setting them up to avoid any possible gear damage.
Donner provides a great range of power supply units, for a variety of size and power requirements. The DP-2 has 10 separate power outputs to help you build a healthy collection of tones. It also comes with great LED lighting that gives just enough illumination for working in dim to dark environments.
Now that we’ve covered nearly every corner of the sonic map, it’s time to mark our tonal territory.
We’ve covered most electric guitar pedal options for you to go out and experiment with. Remember that everything laid out in this article is simply a researched guideline. It’s important to spend time experimenting and bending the rules a bit. That’s how some of the best discoveries are made.
Did you find this article handy? Share this article with your friends, compare notes and experiences. I’m sure you’re just one stomp away from the next iconic tone!